After Hosni Mubarak’s reign finally ended there was the immediate concern that the army would work with the Muslim Brotherhood to hold early elections that would help them consolidate power. And of course, that is exactly what happened. But it seemed not only expected but inevitable, because Mubarak’s legacy was a barren political environment in which only the Brotherhood had the organization and manpower to step into the vacuum.
One (fair) criticism of the Bush administration’s efforts to promote democracy is that it relied too much on elections when the institutions of civil society were not yet in place. That was the case when the Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi became president and he had no civil society to compete with. And he, unsurprisingly, would like to keep it that way. Today an Egyptian court handed down a guilty verdict to at least 16 Americans among 43 NGO workers accused of subverting the government. The New York Times reports:
Most of the Americans were sentenced in absentia because they had long left the country, including Sam LaHood, son of the U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. He received a five-year jail term.
The only American defendant still in Egypt was Robert Becker, who was sentenced to two years. Becker has maintained that his refusal to flee Egypt with fellow Americans who were in the country at the time of the crackdown on nonprofit groups was to show solidarity with his Egyptian colleagues….
The verdict, read out by judge Makram Awad, also ordered the closure of the offices and seizure of the assets in Egypt belonging to the U.S. nonprofit groups as well as one German organization for which the defendants worked. These are the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute, Freedom House, a center for training journalists, and Germany’s Konrad Adenauer Foundation.
The fact that most of the Americans were able to leave the country before the verdict and sentencing were announced is an indication that the point wasn’t to actually jail Americans as much as it was to close NGOs and stop any development of Egyptian civil society in its tracks.
The charges stem from the military-backed caretaker government in the wake of Mubarak’s fall. But it’s exactly the message Morsi would like to send. Last week, Morsi presented to the Egyptian senate his proposed law tightening regulations on NGOs which would subject groups’ funding to the Morsi government’s approval. Human rights groups objected to the law saying it would enable Morsi to stop the flow of funding to groups he doesn’t like under the guise of federal regulation.
It is not meant to even get to that point, of course, as the law is a signal to Morsi’s critics to cool it–as is the coincidentally-timed verdict. “The NGO law, if anything, confirms the view of the NGOs that we’ve had in this trial,” the Egypt director for Human Rights Watch told the Wall Street Journal. “It views NGOs operating in Egypt as potential foreign agents.”
The Journal also reports: “Mr. Shaheed, the NGO attorney, said he had expected the judge to eventually acquit all 43 NGO workers because of the politicized nature of the case.” In other words, he didn’t think the Egyptian court would convict the son of a member of President Obama’s Cabinet after a sham trial on trumped-up charges, considering the fact that Egypt depends so heavily on American aid. The sheer brazenness of it caught him by surprise. The Journal didn’t ask Shaheed whether he was also surprised by Morsi’s NGO law, introduced within days of the court verdict to make sure the West got the message.
And what message will Obama send back to Morsi? The Times reminds readers not only of the $1 billion in military aid and $250 million in economic aid from the U.S. to Egypt each year, but also that American “leverage can be decisive in determining whether the International Monetary Fund gives Egypt a $4.8 billion loan to kick start its ailing economy. While the proposed loan can only meet some of Egypt’s pressing needs, it would unlock billions of dollars in pledged aid by Gulf Arab nations and Europe.”
While the court ruling was an unnecessary insult to the countries involved, Morsi’s anti-civil society law is more significant to U.S.-Egyptian relations and more relevant to what the U.S. decides to do with all that money it was planning to hand over to Morsi. That’s because while the court case stemmed from a post-Mubarak incident tied to the military’s transitional rule, the crackdown on civil society is designed to stymie political freedom and prevent the roots of democracy from ever taking hold.
That’s something for Obama to consider going forward. Morsi’s consolidated power is not a limited emergency measure to keep order from crumbling into anarchy. It’s an expression of his goal to ensure Egyptians never attain the freedom and opportunity they were denied under Mubarak. “Egypt has played a pivotal role in human history for over 6,000 years,” Obama said when Mubarak stepped down. “But over the last few weeks, the wheel of history turned at a blinding pace as the Egyptian people demanded their universal rights.” Those are rights they won’t get if Morsi gets his way–a point Egypt’s new strongman is trying to make as clear as possible.